Monday, August 18, 2014

Rajya Sabha seats, or Bharat Ratna, or Governorships, it's all politics & populism, not national interest

In itself, Sachin Tendulkar and Rekha treating Parliament as one of their trinkets is a non-issue. There are many in our vast and fertile country who have neither the civilisational range nor the intellectual calibre to understand the true meaning of Parliament. If such individuals are given positions they are not worthy of and they mishandle them, it is not their fault; it is the fault of the system that facilitates such mismatch. Indeed, the Tendulkar-Rekha controversy and the ongoing Bharat Ratna controversy and controversies around a constitutional position like Governor are all pointers to system malfunctioning. It may well have something to do with fault lines in the Indian character.

What else can it be but a flaw in the national character that only Indian millionaires crave for honours and favours in foreign countries? We do not hear of a Chinese-American cosying up to political parties in Washington and receiving a Presidential Medal of Freedom. No Malaysian has "donated" his way to the British Parliament. Indians have. "Cash for peerage" is a scandal in Britain. The Labour Party in particular has taken generous donations from wealthy Indians and rewarded them with Lordship and other favours. Last year New York hotelier Sant Singh Chatwal pleaded guilty to making illegal donations to US politicians. A longtime fundraiser for the Clintons, Chatwal received a Padma award in 2010 triggering off the bitterest disputation in the disputation-filled history of those awards.

That same Indian penchant for shortcuts to distinction has haunted our originally well-intentioned national honours concept. The nomination system for the Rajya Sabha was devised so that the nation could benefit from the wisdom of distinguished achievers who would normally be hesitant to fight elections. The first batch in 1952 underlined that noble intent, with illustrious figures such as Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer, Zakir Husain, Prithviraj Kapur and Rukmini Arundale gracing the upper house. Then the standards began to fall, as did the standards of politicians. Into the House went the likes of M.F.Husian and Lata Mangeshkar and Hema Malini who had no notion of their obligations as MPs. Alongside appeared another trend: Businessmen with spare cash buying MLA votes to enter Rajya Sabha. In a system so crippled by its own gatekeepers, why blame Tendulkar and Rekha who were victims of idolatry, not vehicles of nobility.

Idolatry was also behind Tendulkar's Bharat Ratna award for which he was eminently unsuited. A responsible state would have recognised cricket's deterioration into a business activity led by fixers and money launderers and tried to divert popular attention to less corrupting games such as football, hockey and tennis. But the decision makers went for cheap populist applause by picking a man who will, if it all, be a Ratna of cricket, not of Bharat.

Is the present Government any wiser? Atal Behari Vajpayee's nomination for the high honour will be universally welcomed for no living leader is more deserving. But Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, Subhas Bose? They were among the greatest sons of India, no doubt. But they belonged to an era of sacrifice and service. To impose today's yardsticks of honour on them will not honour them. Should we give a Bharat Ratna to Kalidasa?

The worst impact of system malfunctioning has been on constitutional posts like Comptroller & Auditor General and Chief Election Commissioner. When some incumbents sought and were given post-retirement jobs, these posts lost their sanctity. Now an argumentative Army Chief has been absorbed as a Union minister immediately after retirement, an ominous precedent. In the case of governors, the early years saw some great personages such as H. P. Mody and K.M. Munshi, Sarojini Naidu and P.V.Cheriyan occupying Raj Bhavans. But that phase passed quickly. All parties joined hands to politicise governorship blatantly. The Gandhi dynasty appointed family retainers and loyalist police officers as Governors.

If the new BJP Government asked such appointees to quit, who can complain? In fact they should have quit on their own. In the case of Kamla Beniwal, the BJP Government went into a revenge mode. But again, who can complain? As Gujarat Governor she had obstructed Chief Minister Modi's moves wherever she could. When Modi got his chance, she got her comeuppance, a classic case of foul is fair. What made it ugly was the moral posturing -- the Congress accusing the Government of malafide and the Government proclaiming its adherence to constitutional propriety. Nonsense. It was political tit followed by political tat. Why are our parties dishonest even when they don't have to be?

Monday, August 11, 2014

Congress still cannot look beyond the dynasty, nor BJP beyond sectarian politics. Beware of the voter

It may seem too early, but the contours of the next general election are beginning to take shape. It will be the usual politics, played the usual dismal way. Those who saw in Narendra Modi's victory a turning point in history may have to revise their views. The size of its triumph had surprised the BJP just as the extent of its defeat had shocked the Congress. It was a message for the winner to try and earn the trust of all, and for the loser to introspect and change its ways. In just three months, though, both parties have made their intentions clear: They will learn nothing, change nothing.

The Congress has painted itself into a pathetic corner. Of the many factors that led to its downfall, the most obvious was dynastic dominance. What appeared tolerable in Indira Gandhi's days became unacceptable a generation later. Sonia Gandhi's extraconstitutional control of the Government, her chosen Prime Minister reducing himself to a nobody, and her son's handling of leadership as a part-time hobby combined to make voters realise that the joke had gone too far. Their thumbs-down to the Congress was a bid to save the nation's honour.

If the Gandhis really cared for the party that had looked after them and their interests for so long, they would have paid heed to the message from voters. Some Congress leaders found the courage to criticise Sonia by name. Voices in the Youth Congress rose against Rahul Gandhi. Ignoring it all, the family allowed sycophants to "persuade" them to remain at the helm.

Priyanka is proposed as the new mascot. She does have more mass appeal than her brother. But what else? She has said nothing to date suggesting any understanding of the economic, social or geopolitical issues facing the country and the world. She has often shown an exaggerated view of her family's sacrifices, indicative of a latent autocratic streak. Above all, she is a Vadra and thereby hangs a long shadow of business "achievements". Is this the future of India?

It is a factor in the future of the BJP, for sure. Another devoted mother has openly asked that Varun Gandhi be nominated for the chief ministership of UP, no doubt as a stepping stone to prime ministership. What this means is that, BJP or Congress, the leadership of India will remain in the hands of one Gandhi or another. This was not the objective of those who voted for Narendra Modi. Nor did the voters expect Modi to lapse into a phase of perceptible slowdown so soon after the elections. Perhaps the hype he created during the campaign is having a rebound, reminiscent of the hype the Aam Aadmi Party generated and later found impossible to sustain.

But the Prime Minister's associates are by no means quiet. Hindi partisanship, despite proving divisive, has been enforced on the IAS-IPS system as well. The decision to discount English in UPSC grades is the most short-sighted initiative by the Government so far. It holds up UP-Bihar as the standard for the rest of the country. It puts India at a disadvantage in a world where China, for example, is actively promoting the study of English among its people. It gives non-Hindi citizens the feeling that they are less than equal. It will create dissensions and will lead to resentments. All for what?

Meanwhile the prices of essential commodities have been rising. The Green Tribunal is being neutered so that hills can be levelled, rivers killed through sand mining and forests cleared for the sake of "development". Attempts are being made to hand agriculture over to foreign seed monopolies in the name of promoting GM food. What does the Prime Minister have to say about these developments? We don't know. Are some groups operating from behind? We don't know. We only know what he says in Brazil and Nepal.

Silences, too, have a role in politics. The calculation may be that the Prime Minister should stay above the dust and din of groundlevel politicking, that sectarianism is the surest way to win elections. This line succeeded in UP and Amit Shah, the strategist behind that victory, has since become party president. As an all-India strategy, however, sectarianism may cause more harm than good. Voters are basically in favour of inclusive growth, precisely what Modi offered. If that promise goes astray, the Indian voter is experienced enough to know what to do. The BJP lost three recent byelections in Uttarkhand. Never underestimate the voter.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Bold new books on Chanakya and China, Rama and Shiva; Time for bold new action to get a few banned?

We all know that Chanakya was a genius at manipulating people ruthlessly for power. What fun he (and we) would have if he were reborn and got active in today's politics. Or, for a change, imagine Bengal as a protectorate/colony of China with Governor Wen finding it difficult to control the Maoists. Or, horror of horrors, consider the proposition that there is no evidence to prove the historicity of Rama. These are a few of the hair-raising visions awaiting attention in our bookstores. Among them are three new volumes by Wendy Doniger, the author India promoted by banning On Hinduism. The shelves are alive with the sound of letters, brilliant and daringly original.

Catalogues by publishers are usually humdrum affairs, providing lists of titles and trade details such as size, paper quality and release details. Not the Aleph catalogue. They don't even call it a catalogue; they call it The Book of Aleph 3. It also looks every inch like a book -- a hardbound, immaculately designed, beautifully printed book in the classical mould. Its approach to content is different, too. Of course it gives the usual information: A full list of 50 titles, including paperback editions of titles brought out earlier. But its 192 pages present a phantasmagoria of long and short excerpts interspersed with photographs, blurbs and author profiles. We can savour it like an anthology. To read extensive excerpts from Timeri Murari, Shoven Chowdhury, Romila Thapar et al is to partake of a feast.

Who is more devastatingly inventive -- Murari or Chowdhury? Chanakya Returns is so apt a theme for our upside-down times that it is surprising no one had thought it up before Timeri Murari. But then, no one had thought of Murari's The Taliban Cricket Club either. His newly minted Chanakya is a master of 21st century politics. He has a grouse or two, mainly about an Italian plagiarist called Machiavelli who stole Chanakya's theories and achieved fame. "This is the problem with death", muses Chanakya. "One thousand seven hundred and fifty-two years later your work appears under another man's name, granting him the immortality that is rightly yours".

But the plagiarist never got the opportunity that Chanakya got with his second coming. In his modern avatar, Chanakya began advising Avanti, heir to a family that has ruled the country for long, young and malleable and aware of her favoured position in life. "I began service as a humble clerk though not humble myself. I ensured I was loyal to her alone and to none else. She noticed this loyalty and confined her thoughts and emotions in me". Familiar?

Read about his advice on love. "The heart is not to be trusted as it is brainless. Love is a watery foundation. Like the flip of a coin, love can fall into hate. Power is an aphrodisiac, it is unending hot sex in 1001 positions, it is magical, it is miraculous. Your followers will worship you like an idol that can confer riches and miracles more than any god". No wonder Avanti was persuaded to believe that the love of power was better than the power of love. Familiar? Perish the thought. This is a novel where "any resemblance to any actual entirely coincidental".

Shoven Chowdhury has a disturbing habit. He covers the most outrageous subversions with the most innocuous titles. Last year he gave us an account of an India devastated by Chinese nuclear bombs -- Bombay obliterated, Bengal turned into a protectorate of China. And what was the title of that novel? The Competent Authority. In a repeat of that trick, he has come out with a new novel called, even more innocuously, Death of a Schoolmaster. Be warned. It is Bengal, the Chinese protectorate, revisited. Things are not very nice. Governor Wen is suffering grievously from a lack of concubines. The New Thug Society is trying to free Bengal from Chinese oppression. But "China ruled Asia now. They were all one big happy family. The Japanese were the sons, the Koreans were the brothers, and the Bengalis were the idiot cousins". Time for a Bengal Sena to organise a bonfire?

Better still, leave it to the banning expert, Dinanath Batra. He must get Romila Thapar banned for saying, in her The Past as Present, that doubting historicity (that is, saying that Rama is a mythical character) is not blasphemy. He must get Wendy Doniger banned again for her new study, Shiva, The Erotic Ascetic. How else can we keep India purified.

Monday, July 28, 2014

In India --and in no other country--rape is justified by Home Ministers, MPs, casteists. It's our shame

In this season of rape...ugh, what a miserable way to start a column! If only we could say instead: "In this land of milk and honey where the sun shines equally on all and the birds..." But that would be false. In our country the sun shineth the way rain raineth. The rain it raineth on the just / And also on the unjust fella / But chiefly on the just, because / The unjust have the just's umbrella. Brutality hits both men and women, but chiefly women because men have the backing of both law and custom.

Besides, we are past the order of seasons. Wet or dry, hot or cold, it's always the right season for rape. For we practise rape not just as it is understood in dictionaries -- sexual attack on a woman without her consent. For us rape is an assertion of power, a tarzan-call of male ego. It is sadism above and beyond what Count de Sade envisaged in his theories on the pleasures of cruelty. It is integral to the centuries of feudalism and casteism that we have revered.

In the December 2012 gang rape in a Delhi bus, for example, the girl was not just sexually used for the pleasure of the rapists. After the rape she was penetrated with rods, beaten up and lacerated; the youngest of the rapists -- later protected under juvenile law -- tried to dig out her intestines with his hands. In the Badaun (UP) case, the two teenagers who were raped, while still alive, were hung on a tree where they suffocated to death. Rape in India is not just suppressed sex finding an outlet. Nor is it, as in some developed countries, a sideshow of the liberated lifestyle. It is suppressed anger and presumed social superiority that express themselves through barbarity. The police initially made light of the Badaun rape because the culprits were higher in the caste scale than the victims.

Insensitivity and partiality at the police level are in fact a bigger shame than the rapes themselves. The hitherto lovable city of Bangalore was rocked the other day when a girl was snatched from inside a car by a bunch of thugs. When the girl filed a complaint, the police inspector tried to brush it aside, recording minor charges against the culprits. As it happened, the inspector belonged to the same community as the culprits. Higher authorities later intervened and suspended the inspector.

Bangalore has lost its innocence. In the most disturbing sexual assault case in recent memory, a six-year child was molested in her school by a member of the staff, perhaps two. What made it unforgivable was that the upmarket school tried first to hush up the matter. It then took the incredible position that it was not responsible for the safety of the students on its premises. Incensed parents took to the street in protest reminiscent of the Delhi gangrape protests two years ago. The Government, indifferent at first, was forced to take action against the school and even transfer the city's police commissioner. Unfortunately the BJP's front organisations took advantage of the public indignation, giving the protests a political colour despite objections by the parents.

Politicians in opposition see even the most outrageous crimes as merely occasions for partisan propaganda. Those in power pay only lip sympathy when popular anger is roused. They showed no sincerity of purpose even in implementing the recommendations of the Justice Verma Commission in the wake of the Delhi gangrape. The Commission wanted the recording of victims' statement to be mandatorily videographed. The Government made it optional. The Commission asked that senior police officials be held responsible for sexual offences by their juniors. The Government rejected the proposal.

Add to this the arrogant public statements arrogant political leaders go on making. UP leads this list with Mulayam Singh Yadav's statement that "boys will be boys". According to Chattisgarh's Home Minister Ramsevak Paikara, nobody deliberately commits rape, it happens accidentally. Another Home Minister, Babulal Gaur of Madhya Pradesh went philosophical and said that rape was "sometimes right, sometimes wrong". Tapan Paul, MP representing the woman-led Trinamool Congress, beat all by saying that he would send his boys to rape CPM women. That these men are not put in jail is the curse of our land -- and the reason India will continue to be the only country in the world where rape is publicly supported by public figures. We all have to bear that shame.

Monday, July 21, 2014

In Brazil a new India met a new China. Will there be a new pragmatism leading to peace on the border?

What a pity there was no independent reporting from Brazil about our Prime Minister's meeting with China's President. We can comfort ourselves by assuming that it was a subtle diplomatic ploy to impress China. After all, China's leaders have always communicated to their people exclusively through Xinhua, the official news agency. Now Narendra Modi has communicated to us exclusively through PTI. At last we are equal to China.

But let's set that aside. Let's set aside, too, cockles-warmers like India becoming the first President of the new BRICS bank. The great reality that surfaced in Brazil is that Modi has a historical opportunity to end the boundary problem with China. Two factors point to this. First, China respects strong leaders and it knows that Modi is so strong that not a mouse will move in Delhi without his say-so. Secondly, the border problem can never be solved without India repudiating some of Jawaharlal Nehru's actions; the Congress governments could not possibly do this while Modi probably can.

In the past emotionalism seized our Parliament, the media and public opinion to such an extent that the country as a whole lost its sense of direction. We never faced the fact that, historically, there was no agreed border pact between India and China. In the West the Aksaichin-Ladakh area was so barren ("not a blade of grass grows there", as Nehru famously put it) that no one in India knew that China had built a road across it. In the more contentious eastern sector, India swore by the McMahon Line, which was a line drawn by a British officer and then approved at a meeting in 1914 by British-Indian and Tibetan governments; China was not a participant.

The position Chinese Prime Minister Chou en-lai initially adopted was a reasonable one. Where negotiations were required to confirm a presumed boundary, he said, negotiations must be held so that a new treaty could be signed between equals in place of one imposed by old imperial overlords. In the case of the McMahon Line, according to published reports, Chou even told Nehru that China would not use the negotiations to change the boundary line. We failed to take advantage of that golden opportunity. When Chou visited Delhi in 1960 Home Minister Gobind Vallabh Pant spoke to him patronisingly, Finance Minister Morarji Desai insultingly. Nehru could not even keep India's dealings with China on a dignified level. When China moved to absorb Tibet as a piece of its sovereign territory, Nehru agreed without bargaining for an overall boundary agreement.

Post-Chou China adopted a more belligerent tone. In recent years it has been noticeably confrontationist in its approach to Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia. Along the Himalayas there have been regular "incidents" in the border posts. Much of this is attributed to hawkish military leaders at policy-making levels.

China will never yield in its ambition to be the unchallenged regional power in Asia and then the unchallenged world superpower. To that extent it will always be a difficult customer, no matter who is at the helm, emperors or communists. But the Chinese are also history's most pragmatic people. They are natural businessmen, at ease running massive shipping corporations or tiny kirana stores. Like Gujaratis.

This is where two minds can meet. If Narendra Modi is strong in India, Xi Jinping is China's most powerful leader since Deng Hsiao-ping, combining in himself several posts including military overlordship. Both are decision-makers. Both are good at the game of politics. So Modi will quickly recognise why, even as Xinhua was reporting the Modi-Xi meeting at length and with warmth, China's border patrol in Ladakh staged an intrusion trick or two. Once he learns how to call this standard bluff, the rest will be easy.

Xi's words in Brazil suggest that he has already developed the view that cooperation with a friendly India will benefit China economically and diplomatically while posing no threat to it politically or militarily. "If the two countries speak in one voice," said Xi, "the whole world will attentively listen". It should be easy for Modi to show that if the two countries speak in one voice, business will boom for both. But, unlike Xi, Modi will have to carry the people with him. Government leaders in India have never told the people the real story of the border mess. If Modi continues that style of functioning, he will not score the way Xi might. Brazil reporting notwithstanding, we are not equal to China, thank heavens.